Indication of drier periods on Mars from the chemistry and mineralogy of atmospheric dust

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The ubiquitous atmospheric dust on Mars is well mixed by periodic global dust storms, and such dust carries information about the environment in which it once formed and hence about the history of water on Mars1. The Mars Exploration Rovers have permanent magnets to collect atmospheric dust for investigation by instruments on the rovers2,3. Here we report results from Mössbauer spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence of dust particles captured from the martian atmosphere by the magnets. The dust on the magnets contains magnetite and olivine; this indicates a basaltic origin of the dust and shows that magnetite, not maghemite, is the mineral mainly responsible for the magnetic properties of the dust. Furthermore, the dust on the magnets contains some ferric oxides, probably including nanocrystalline phases, so some alteration or oxidation of the basaltic dust seems to have occurred. The presence of olivine indicates that liquid water did not play a dominant role in the processes that formed the atmospheric dust.

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Figure 1: Selected peak area ratios from APX spectra.
Figure 2: Mössbauer spectrum of airborne dust. Mössbauer spectrum of the dust attracted to the capture magnet on Opportunity, sol 328–330; data are from the 14.4 keV channel of the Mössbauer spectrometer.


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This paper is dedicated to the memory of Jens Martin Knudsen (1930–2005), who inspired and promoted our work with Mars over almost two decades. During his last year, a long-standing aspiration of his came true: a Mössbauer spectrum of martian dust was obtained. The Danish authors wish to thank the Athena Science Team and JPL engineers for supporting and carrying out the sometimes tricky, currently ongoing magnet observations on both rovers. Support from the Danish Research Agency, the Thomas B. Thrige foundation and DELTA Danish Electronics, Light and Acoustics is acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Walter Goetz.

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Goetz, W., Bertelsen, P., Binau, C. et al. Indication of drier periods on Mars from the chemistry and mineralogy of atmospheric dust. Nature 436, 62–65 (2005) doi:10.1038/nature03807

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